The top executive of MNC Financial Inc., the region's largest bank holding company, resigned yesterday and was replaced by the Cleveland insurance and real estate mogul who has agreed to pump $180 million into the cash-strapped institution.
The early retirement of Alan P. Hoblitzell Jr. as MNC's chairman came in the midst of growing concern by shareholders and directors about the health of the parent company of Maryland National Bank, American Security Bank and Equitable Bank. MNC has suffered along with other area banks as a result of problems in the real estate industry, losing $75 million in the second quarter.
Financier Alfred Lerner, who now owns 8.9 percent of MNC's preferred stock and could own as much as 23 percent under an agreement that is awaiting regulators' approval, was named chairman and CEO of MNC. Lerner said yesterday that Hoblitzell, 59, decided on his own to leave.
"He called me and told me about it," said Lerner. "It was a judgment he made. I was persuaded that I had a responsibility to step into this thing at this time.
"I think the problems are straightforward," said Lerner of MNC's real estate loan troubles. He said the bank would deal with them "one loan at a time. ... We have to bang away at them, get the business back to where it should be."
Bank officials said that although federal regulators have been keeping a close eye on the bank, they were not involved in the leadership change. They were, however, told of the change as soon as it was made and were "supportive," said Daniel G. Finney, a spokesman for MNC.
The change in leadership follows an internal restructuring at MNC that has seen more than a half dozen senior executives ousted in recent weeks. Banking sources said those changes were made at the behest of Lerner, but MNC officials denied that.
"Lerner now has the title and position to go along with the job he's been performing for some months now," said John A. Bailey, an analyst with Ferris, Baker, Watts in Washington. "My position is that it is good for shareholders. It probably means restructuring, cost-cutting and grooming the company for a possible sale."
But Lerner said that those who suggest he is interested in selling, either his shares or all of MNC, hadn't looked at his history. "I'm an investor, not a trader," he said. Still, he added, "you can't rule anything in or out."
Analysts generally considered the move a favorable one for MNC, but noted that no one is likely to turn the company around overnight.
"It's going to take the banks like MNC possibly years to come out of this," said Tony Davis, a bank analyst at Wheat, First Securities in Richmond. "We're still in a free fall in mid-Atlantic real estate and there's nothing for investors to hold on to."
MNC's stock closed yesterday at $6.37 1/2, down 25 cents.
Davis and other bank analysts said they believe MNC will survive. To do that, Lerner said the bank will align itself around its major lines of business, including wholesale banking operations, real estate operations and its huge credit card business. But many areas of MNC will shrink, meaning more layoffs, said a bank spokesman.
Hoblitzell declined to comment on his decision to retire. He started out 34 years ago as a management trainee and saw MNC through its spurt of growth and the acquisition of American Security and Equitable. He has been chairman since 1984. An MNC spokesman said details of Hoblitzell's retirement have not been worked out.
At a hastily called board meeting Saturday, Hoblitzell told directors of his decision to retire and said he believed that MNC's rapid growth and expansion of the last decade were results of his leadership, according to a source who attended the meeting. But in a restructured banking environment, it was time for a new style of leadership, he said.
Lerner, 56, is known as a cigar-chomping man of few words who is smart, tough and not afraid to be blunt about his aims. He started out, according to published reports, as a $75-a-week furniture salesman and built a real estate and insurance empire. Forbes magazine has estimated his fortune at about $370 million.
He was chairman of Equitable Bankcorp. from 1983 until its merger with MNC in January this year. He is chairman of Progressive Corp., an insurance holding company in Cleveland with about $2 billion in assets and a specialty in high-risk automobile and motorcycle coverage.
Lerner said yesterday he has no immediate plans to move to Baltimore, where MNC has its headquarters, but added that he will be available 24 hours a day and plans to be more than just an interim caretaker. Attorney Benjamin R. Civiletti will head the committee that will look for a permanent chairman for the bank, a decision that Lerner said he will have a say in.
Two MNC chief executives who might breathe a sigh of relief are Daniel J. Callahan III of American Security Bank and William H. Daiger Jr. of Maryland National Bank. Asked about their future, Lerner said: "They stay."
Staff writer Joe l Glenn Brenner contributed to this report.